What’s church for, anyway?

I’ve been following along with a really interesting conversation on a couple different blogs lately that feeds into some stuff that’s been floating around in my head lately. Namely:

  • What’s church for?
  • Why do people go to church?
  • What role should churches and religious institutions and communities play in the world?
  • Do people of faith live out their spiritual or religious ideas/beliefs/inclinations in the world? Should they? How? Why? Why not?

United Theological Seminary, New Brighton, MN

These questions HAVE been on my mind lately, but they acquire a completely different feel when voiced in the context of the conversation happening on the blogs I mentioned above. Specifically, the conversation is around whether Solomon’s Porch, an emerging Christian church in Minneapolis, which is also queer-friendly (which, I think it should be said, I only know through following this conversation online), should produce and make public some kind of statement about being something like “open and affirming” (to use my UCC lingo) to queer folks.

The conversation is a lot more complicated than that, but since it’s already there for your reading pleasure, I’m not going to go to any greater lengths to describe it. I will, however, quote part of the comment I posted:

Solomon’s Porch does not exist in a vacuum, and all kinds of -isms are rampant in our world, heterosexism obviously being one of them. My question is this: does Solomon’s Porch exist only to be the church for its insular community, or does it also wish to be a Church for the larger world? Does it want to have a public face, or are its positions only available to the people who attend church there? And perhaps more broadly: is the Church/are Christians called to change the world? And more importantly, how?

Recently I re-read the gospel of Luke, and I was *shocked* to re-remember just how RADICAL Jesus is. He is constantly going against the grain of (Roman, pharisaic) society–standing for the oppressed, etc–and he is PUBLIC about it. Explicitly so. I guess he never issued a hard-copy, political statement, but his followers sure did: that’s how we have the Gospels. So what does that mean for contemporary followers of Jesus? Is it enough to support only the queer people who come through the doors of our congregations? But what about those who never find the Porch?

And does the Porch have a responsibility to be a leader in the progressive evangelical world in not only welcoming queer people into the pews, but actually *saying* something about it too? How else are the rest of us, outside your community, supposed to know what “welcoming everyone” means? Doesn’t almost every Christian church use those same words?

If we lived in a perfect world we wouldn’t need flags or rainbows or parades. Perhaps the community in the Porch doesn’t need to have a “Statement on LGBTQ Issues” — but I would argue that it desperately needs to be Public and Explicit about its position on queer folks. There is power in your church, and staying publicly silent IS making a statement. The Porch community may not need it, but queer people who live outside your community do.

A couple of weeks ago I got into a discussion with a friend about the degree to which people are political actors: does the way we dress, the way we look, the way we act, send out political messages to others, REGARDLESS of our intent? My answer to that is yes. We can’t control the way we are perceived, but we can understand and be conscious that all of us enter into the world each day as political actors, whether we like it or not. People WILL read us a certain way, even if they themselves also have a responsibility to look past the surface. The question at hand is: is that important to you? And if so, what are you going to do about it?

I think the question is the same for religious institutions, religious churches, and spiritual communities alike, and I think it’s where the Emerging Church movement kind of has things backward. I get that it’s about transcending modernist labels and identity politics, but I would argue that an Emerging Church is no less of a political actor than other churches,whether they like it or not.. Transcendence of identities might happen within a community of one or two hundred people, but to anyone else OUTSIDE the emerging movement, the community looks no different than any other. So what should they do about it? Well I would argue, of course, that for this reason, emerging churches, too, need to be intentional and publicly clear about how and where they place themselves in the world.

So, to return to the original set of questions that I asked:

  • What’s church for?
  • Why do people go to church?
  • What role should churches and religious institutions and communities play in the world?
  • Do people of faith live out their spiritual or religious ideas/beliefs/inclinations in the world? Should they? How? Why? Why not?

The way we answer these questions informs how we try to solve the above conversation. My vision of church begins as a place of radical inclusion, so much so that I do not just welcome the Other, but that I am the Other, and where the Other is Me. We do not need to reach out our hands to help our neighbors, because we ARE our neighbors, connected through a common humanity. In this kind of construct, we don’t have the privilege to “struggle” with an “issue”. I am compelled to name the injustice the Other suffers because for that person to suffer means I suffer too.

In my vision of church, participants not only “walk the walk” in their personal lives, but also bind themselves together to create a collective power in order to combat systemic injustice. Jesus didn’t live in a vacuum: the parables he taught, the people he embraced, and the illnesses he healed made social commentaries upon the world around him. He upset people in power, and was killed because of it. If we really live in the model that Jesus set, then we are also called to fight the abuses of power in our world. But first we actually need to NAME what is wrong with the way things are, and envision what a better world might look like, especially if we expect things to change.

This video is an example of a place that I think does a good job at least trying to be a place of radical inclusion, even if not always perfectly: Union Theological Seminary. The video is long, but even watching a few minutes will give you a sense of what I’m thinking about.

I know I’m throwing out some Big Talk, and I can’t profess that either my congregation or my life lives up to my radical vision of what I’d wish for the church to be in this world. But one has to start somewhere. This is the first time I’ve tried to put together something constructive (as opposed to deconstructive) about what I think the church should be, and it does reflect what might be emerging as my personal theology. So please: give me your feedback, your pushback , your questions, your thoughts. But know that I’m not offering these statements in a spirit of ultimate truth. I’m just trying some of this stuff on, and am going to continue to hone and build upon these ideas. Help me figure out if it fits, yah?


wtf, manly Jesus

I’ve been reading a book for class, American Jesus by Stephen Prothero. Each chapter covers a different interpretation of Jesus in American history, from Thomas Jefferson’s literally taking a razor to the Bible to Jesus the Hindu Yogi. One of the Christian interpretations, focused mostly on the early part of the 20th century, is “Manly Redeemer.”

Jesus Boxer

For example, check out this prayer by”Baseball Evangelist” Billy Sunday: “Lord, save us from offhanded, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, think-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-caret Christianity.”

It all seems like a quirky anecdote, but Stephen Prothero misses the boat when he forgets to mention some contemporary examples of this kind of (incredibly damaging) Christology. Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll in Seattle (remember this story from Times Magazine?) is on of the leaders in the movement, also out to redefine and manipulate Calvinist theology. Driscoll insists that Christianity is decidedly ‘chickified’ and that we need more innovative manly men permeating our churches. (You know, those dudes watching football on Sundays instead of going to church.)

Someday I’m going to write more about my conflicted thoughts on masculinity. Until then, I’ll leave you with this stupifying vision that is the reincarnation of Billy Sunday, and apparently also of our most manly Jesus himself: